Review: ModNation Racers: Road Trip

ModNationRacersRoadTrip

Mario Kart 7 shipped with 32 tracks. The Vita’s absolutely execrable Ben 10: Galactic Racing sports a paltry 12. On launch day, ModNation Racers: Road Trip had 50,000. And counting.

Yes, it’s tempting to just break out a resounding “AND NOW HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY?” Or at least hand the handheld kart-racing trophy straight into the hands of the colorful and goofy-looking ModNation avatar I just designed. But let’s tap the brakes a little first. There’s no question this is the best racing game currently available for the PlayStation Vita. A look under the hood reveals a few dents and head-scratching design decisions.

Let’s start with the good stuff: Most of what you love about the PlayStation 3 version of ModNation Racers has motored intact onto the Vita, including the entire PS3 library of user-created tracks, a touch that theoretically ensures you’ll never run out of new stuff to explore, even if you never decide to make and share a new track yourself. The game’s career mode features the same wonderful race reward system, where first-place finishes yield a gumball dispenser’s worth of new objects, stickers and logos to expand your create-a-track/kart/racer vibe. The races (at least through the game’s first half) are deep strategic throwdowns, where the decisions you make about how and when to use your weapons can make a critical difference between first and third place. (Not to mention how cool those weapons are.) Having access to a right analog stick is wonderful for sideswiping your opponents off the course with satisfying zip, a feature Mario and Bowser only wish they could cop.

Not surprisingly, plenty of touchscreen features abound here, from menu navigation to the course design features, where you can use simple finger swipes to create your course and bank your tracks. Object placement can be a little tricky on the small screen but improves with practice. During races, you can tap the screen to launch weapon attacks or, if you’re trailing the leaders on the final stretch, convert those weapons into precious boost. Again, a nice strategic touch that ensures you’re never left defenseless.

Not all the touch-centric touches are well deployed. Road Trip’s wheel-based menu setup is harder to navigate than a NASCAR race after Danica Patrick has created a ten-car pileup on the opening lap. Too many of the game’s most interesting and user-centric features are buried under submenus that are challenging to bring up, unless you happen to have E.T. fingers. Unlike the course creation section, practice only makes for more frustration.

The racing has issues as well. Veteran Mario Karters love to complain about cheap blue spiny shells wrecking their otherwise perfectly driven race on the final stretch. ModNation Roadtrippers are going to have a much, much longer list, and it’s going to hit them on every part of the course. As the course campaign advances past its midpoint, races become less about clever drifting and weapon deployment and almost entirely about ridiculous obstacle navigation, as the ever-expanding number of pitfalls littering the course—barrels, flaming platforms, pillars blocking your jumps and on and on–means you’ll be exploding and careening into the ditch as often as you’ll be rocketing across the finish line. Survival often relies on timing, a factor that’s often out of your hands, and laser memorization of safe passages. At these points, Road Trip feels less like a racing game and more like a breakneck-paced platforming game. It also removes the effectiveness of aerial spins and flips, the fast-track to strategically pumping up your boost meter. It’s kinda hard to pull these off when every jump sends you smacking into a flaming wall.

The biggest dent in the chassis is a shocking—and I mean seriously shocking–lack of online multiplayer. This is a first-party franchise we’re talking about here. You’re telling me it’s possible to pull off cross-platform play, but the ability to front a feature that made it into the PSP version of ModNation Racers somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor in favor of local ad hoc? Like the psychotic spouse says to her guilty huz on the Shamrock Shake commercial: Wow.

Given the abundance of deep customization and clever racing strategy, it’s quite possible to overlook even the most glaring of Road Trip’s shortcomings. Gamers will have to make the same kind of emotional bargain as the proud owner of an unhousebroken new puppy: The cute factor’s a major plus. Just be aware there are going to be some messes to clean up.

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Pros:
+ More tracks than you’ll ever have time to race, plus the chance to create even more
+ Most of the fun and strategy of the PS3 game
+ Course creation’s a snap with touch controls

Cons:
– Shocking lack of online multiplayer
– Menu navigation can be a ten-car pileup
– Harder races turn into impossible-to-survive obstacle courses

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: San Diego Studio
Release Date: 2/14/2012
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1 (2-4 ad hoc)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.